Archive for May, 2011

Aquaria: More Songs

Naija, Naija! She's a little fish!My last session netted me two more songs for transforming — apparently this is what most of the songs do. First off was fish form, which turns you into a small fish with an oddly human face.

I should note something about the faces in this game generally. Most of the creatures are fish, which of course don’t have much in the way of facial expressions, but Naija and a few other beings seen in visions are humanoid. Humanoid figures are articulated like an Indonesian shadow puppet, all 2D and shown permanently in profile but with rotating joints. This gives them enough freedom of movement that, when the camera is zoomed in enough for you to see faces clearly (as happens when you stay still for a while), it feels a little weird that the faces are so immobile. It reminds me a little of Jason Little’s experimental comic Jack’s Luck Runs Out, which uses faces from a deck of playing cards for all its characters. Little described the result as a “masked drama”, because of the way he had to compensate for the inexpressive faces with expressive body language. At any rate, it’s a bit of a reminder of what this game really is: not a world, but a work of art.

The purpose of fish form is to fit yourself through narrow passages. Supposedly it also makes some enemies ignore you, but my first try at using it in that way was unsuccessful enough to scare me away from further attempts. Once I had it, I of course started going back to places where I had noticed narrow passages before, and in the process found a boss fight against an enormous face, which occasionally changed expression. When it did, it became vulnerable to attack, allowing you to punish it for such inappropriate behavior.

The reward for destroying the unnaturally variable face: a new song. Apparently the face was the source of power for a now-extinct race of aquatic druids, and now I can turn into an approximation of one of them. (Because obviously you need to make yourself as powerful as beings who failed to prevent the extinction of their own race. I guess it’s better than fish form, at least.) In this form, you throw seeds that grow into huge and damaging thorn plants when they hit a solid surface. It’s not a very effective form of combat against most creatures; there are some things that crawl along the walls, or land on the walls between leaps, or even just stay in one place all the time, but these are generally the things it’s easy to get away from by just swimming away from the wall. I suppose I’ll find places where it’s tactically indespensible — that seems to be how things generally work in this game — but for now, my main use for it is to get past barriers. There are blue bubble-like barriers on certain passages, invulnerable to fireballs but poppable by thorns. This seems extremely arbitrary, but the game seems to have a rule that any new song you learn has to have a unique kind of barrier it overcomes.

Aquaria: Sing Mode

I sing the body aquaticNaija’s powers, as noted before, are activated by song — sort of like in Ocarina of Time, but instead of pairing notes with buttons on the gamepad, they’re arranged around her in a circle when you hold the sing button. If you’re using the mouse, that means the right mouse button. While in sing mode, you hit notes by rolling the cursor over them. Presumably the analog joystick on a gamepad picks them as well, because their layout looks exactly like the pie menus seen in Ratchet & Clank and Psychonauts. (Luckily, the eight slots are exactly enough to hold a major scale.) The one big difference from those menus is that you’re not simply picking one item. You’re picking a sequence, which means tracing out a path within the circle on the screen.

Now, the touted advantage of pie menus is that they’re gestural — that, unlike drop-down menus and the like, you don’t really need visual feedback to use them: once you know which option lies in which direction, you can sweep the mouse in that direction without looking. The sing interface in Aquaria delves deeper into the “mouse gestures” concept, making you trace out simple shapes in the process of moving from note to note, albeit with on-screen icons to guide you. At that modest level of complexity, if you can do it without visual feedback, it’s because you’re getting aural feedback from the song itself.

So far, I only know three songs — this is turning out to be a large game, so I’m still only in the second chapter. (A fourth, without an associated power, was used as a passcode to open a door at one point.) The first one you get is a temporary protective shield, activated by the gesture left-right-left-right, which produces an approximation to the “dee-doo-dee-doo” of an old-fashioned British police car siren. The second is a simple “do-re-mi” done by sweeping a counterclockwise arc upward from the bottom. This is the song for lifting large rocks, so an upward gesture of both motion and pitch is appropriate.

The third is sort of a mirror of the second, a “do-ti-la” starting at the other end of the scale, going in the opposite direction, and sounding less resolved. This song triggers a mode transition, turning Naija into Battle Goth Naija, who throws fireballs around. (The game calls them “energy bolts” or somesuch, to excuse their presence underwater, but they look like fireballs, so that’s how I think of them.) Significantly, in this mode, Naija cannot sing. The sing button is repurposed as the fireball button. You have to go back to normal, vulnerable Naija to sing (although, since that’s is the form that can do the protective shield, perhaps “vulnerable” isn’t the right word). You do this by clicking on her with the left and right mouse buttons at once, which is a little clumsy, but it works. I suppose that some similar compromise could have been made to allow shooting and singing at the same time, so the repurposing of the button is effect, not cause, of the design decision to not allow that.

Aquaria: Swimming

I just compared the way that you swim about freely in Aquaria to Ecco the Dolphin, but the way you control the swimming is quite different. Ecco was written for the Sega Genesis, which means a controller with a D-pad, not an analog joystick. The movements of the dolphin were famously smooth and fluid, but they were created through moments of acceleration parallel to the X and Y axes as the player made carefully timed nudges. Aquaria supports two different genuinely analog control schemes — joystick and mouse. It also lets you use digital controls (D-pad or WASD keys) to move, and I’ve used that on occasion — when I want controlled, slow movement, and the ability to keep the mouse cursor on the opposite side in case I suddenly need to sprint away.

So, yes, there is a cursor. Pressing and holding the left mouse button makes Naija swim towards it; clicking again puts on an additional burst of speed. Call it cursor-based directional movement, as opposed to clicking on a destination for the avatar to go to like in a typical point-and-click adventure game (which we might call cursor-based positional movement). This isn’t the only game with cursor-based directional movement I’ve ever seen, and it isn’t usually my favorite thing: if all I’m indicating is a direction, I might as well be using a joystick, and if I’m indicating a position as well, I want the game to understand the position I’m pointing to as a position. But somehow, it feels pretty good here, and I think it has to do with the dynamics of moving in water. Unless you’re moving very slowly, you never have really precise control over your position. You accelerate, you swerve around, and you glide to a stop. Even your direction of movement isn’t absolutely under your control, because it takes a moment to swerve; although it’s not compensating for digital controls like Ecco, it’s still smoothing out your motions, processing your inputs into something that Naija can actually swim. If you’re not in absolute control of your position or your velocity, giving the game a continuously-updated spot to aim for is just about the right way to describe the amount and kind of control you really have.


Under fire, underwaterA few years back, Aquaria made a big enough splash in the indie games scene for me to hear it. The demo seemed interesting enough to be worth getting, but I was already on the Oath at that point, and didn’t get around to buying it until it was included in the Humble Indie Bundle. And even then, it was bundled with enough stuff that I didn’t get around to playing it until today.

Set in a system of undersea caverns, the game gives you control of a mysterious not-quite-a-mermaid named Naija, possibly the last of her kind. Regardless of whether she is or not, she starts off as ignorant of her situation as the player. There are ruined temples and the like within spitting distance of her home, but she apparently hasn’t explored them, which is probably wise, considering the hostile marine life out there. Her uninquisitiveness ends with the player’s involvement, of course: exploration is more or less the point of the game, at least in the early stages. By exploring, you discover skills (in the form of songs) that allow you to bypass types of obstacle, and thereby explore further, sometimes backtracking to open up passageways in areas you left behind. For the first hour or two, it seems like that’s all there is to the game, because you have no way of attacking stuff (apart from the minuscule damage you can do by dropping rocks on them, and even that requires you to first learn how to lift rocks by singing). And honestly, that would be plenty for a certain flavor of game. But you do gain offensive capability after a while, and there are boss fights.

In short, it’s pretty much a Metroidvania, except for one thing: it’s not a platformer. It’s a vertical 2D scrolling environment, but you don’t jump and fall. You just swim freely. In a way, the game’s closest cousin is Ecco the Dolphin.

WoW: Orphans

I spent so much time procrastinating about writing up Portal 2 that I completely missed Noblegarden, the week-long Azeroth Easter festival. No matter: it was immediately followed by Children’s Week, when battle-hardened mercenaries with the power to destroy gods are invited to bring orphans to work with them. There’s a whole quest-chain of activities you can do with your orphan, such as flying kites and going for ice cream and going to visit the Banshee Queen in her dank and horrible lair.

Your orphan is treated by the game as the same sort of thing as the various summonable pets you can buy. That is, it follows you wherever you go and does not participate in combat in any way. If you get into your turbo-trike and drive away, the orphan chases after you like an Olympic sprinter. It all seems comically callous: “I’ll just get in my car. No, you stay outside. Cars are for us important hero-types. Just try to keep up, right? The exercise will do you a world of good.” Particularly since, as I noted before, I can drive around on top of lakes. I can see the tyke furiously swimming underwater after me, his location identifiable only by the little quest marker over his head.

Another amusing fact about orphans: they are interchangeable. In a sense, each orphan is all orphans. If you see someone else out walking with an orphan, you can talk to it, and it will respond as if it were yours. I actually took advantage of this during the kite quest, which caused my own orphan to go running around at random, so excited was he by his kite. Rather than chase him down and click on him to complete the quest, I just spoke to a calmer orphan accompanying a stranger.

In short, Children’s Week is exactly the kind of fun I’ve learned to appreciate in WoW: the fun of immersing yourself in incongruity. It’s also a golden opportunity for easy XP (especially for pacifists): each quest in the chain gives the same largish lump of experience as the daily cooking and fishing quests, which means it scales with the questor’s level. As a result, Oleari has finally reached level 60, the level cap for vanilla WoW. I’m disappointed to report that, although I’m now at the right level for a flying mount, I can’t actually obtain one without buying an expansion or two.

It seems like there are three routes I can take from here: I can buy The Burning Crusade and continue leveling Oleari, I can switch to a different character for a while (maybe even try out the Alliance), or I can just drop the whole thing. I’m going to have to decide that I’m done with this game at some point, and reaching the level cap seems like a pretty good time to do that. But I’m told that Burning Crusade is nice — nicer than subsequent expansions, apparently. I’ll take a few days to decide.

« Newer Posts